|Religious freedom and tolerance are core American values [Glen E Friedman]|
Last Monday, August 23rd, artist Glen E Friedman fueled by frustration hung 9 banners out of an apartment window in downtown Manhattan’s Liberty Street. The message being relayed was one of unequivocal religious tolerance. Further still, the apartment currently owned by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, gazes directly down onto the ‘Ground Zero’ site.
This bold statement had two intentions. Firstly to remind those who in recent times having voiced their right to speak out against the building of Cordoba House (for its close proximity to the site), that the United States was founded on the principles of self-representation and a spectrum of personal freedoms.
Secondly, to showcase the diversity of opinion within the United States to those following this event across the globe, opposition to the cultural project is by no means the default position, and especially not in New York. Contrary to how the main stream media has chosen to portray the issue.
Though I was tasked to design the banners, the protest was a collaborative project with significant input from Glen; however the original idea was the brainchild of Glen’s wife and Russell Simmons. Measuring 7′ x 3′ the banners are highly visible not only in size but the context of location has given great mobility to our message of tolerance.
In fact, the apartment windows have a short but significant political history. In response to the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2004, the ‘Liberty Street Protest’ was launched canvassing an anti war message, that no invasion could be justified by the events of 9/11. These windows have served as a pulpit to preach a uniting sermon of peace, acceptance and co-operation, and will continue to do so under present ownership.
The protest in 2004 served again to send a clear message that public opinion in the United States, more specifically within New York, was not blindly in favour of an invasion. The efforts of the ‘Liberty Street Protest’ were relayed in the domestic and international news for weeks, successfully spreading the message of peace and solidarity to millions. Hopefully the current protest can have a similar effect.
The design of the banners utilized symbols from the various major global religions to spell out the word ‘coexist’. On the face of it, rather an ironic creation, as Glen and I are of the Atheist tradition, however the symbolism reflects our attitudes towards religious practice perfectly. We ourselves may not hold your beliefs but we respect you for holding them and we cherish your right to practice them.
The inclusion of the Biblical verse (Mark 12:31) ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, was primarily to demonstrate that coexistence is a millennia old concept, a value of a faith practiced by many of those opposed to the creation of Cordoba House. Something that has clearly slipped their collective attention or maybe an ad hoc insertion of the following caveat: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, as long as they hold your beliefs’.
Reverting back to the present, we pride ourselves in the United States that the first Amendment in our Constitution ensures that freedom of religious practice is protected. However, there are forces within the socio-political landscape that would prefer to circumvent such freedoms pushing an agenda of intolerance onto the unassuming, unquestioning masses.
New York is possibly the most cosmopolitan multi racial city in the world, a bold statement, but one few could deny. It is not only frustrating but misleading for people from far afield to associate New Yorkers as a whole with the xenophobic protests against the building of the Mosque and cultural centre. While our viewpoint isn’t universal in the city, it is widely held, a position that is not being reflected by the main stream media.
Our city is notorious for the many buildings for religious worship; Mosques are located all over the island and across the boroughs, along side churches, chapels, synagogues and temples. Giving the city not just a plethora of places to worship, but adding distinctly to the cultural makeup of the city, creating a great wealth of diversity in ideas, beliefs and practices that make this city the unique place it is. A diversity enjoyed by the many millions that call New York home.
So not only is this current spate of anti-Muslim protests ‘Unamerican’ as decreed by our Constitution, but also belies the ethos and spirit of the city of New York. Our banner is a better reflection of such spirit, one of collaboration, diversity, innovation, tolerance and solidarity. Values held by our friends and fellow citizens who lost loved ones in the shocking events that unfolded on September 11th, 2001.
The anti-Muslim protest is another feather in the cap of the xenophobic right; such fear mongering should not go unchecked. Such elements talk strongly about pride in American Values, but clearly have little connection to them, and this is where our frustration is born. We will fight to better represent ourselves using the mediums at our disposal, in this case, possibility the most political set of windows in Manhattan.
Sean Bonner is a pioneer in the modern internet subculture of social media, being heavily involved in a host of projects including Metblogs and Neoteny Labs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.